Saturday, July 16, 2016

Spock Returns and Goes to San Francisco: or, How Star Trek Became A Franchise

The year was 1982, and Star Trek was back with a vengeance.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, despite being made on the cheap in a very short amount of time, had come out to rave reviews and the highest box office numbers ever.  In the world of American popular entertainment, Star Trek had officially arrived.  No longer was this odd little space property from the '60s to be the butt of jokes, tarred with its cheesy acting and the obsessiveness of its fans.  Star Trek had entered the ring of cinema--the epicenter of the mainstream, the home of the culturally respected and esteemed--and made a name for itself there.  Star Trek belonged.

More to the point, for the studio at least, Star Trek II was quite simply a success, financial and critical.  It was the kind of film every studio executive wanted to be responsible for: a hit.

Still, the studios, and Harve Bennett, were not yet satisfied.

With Star Trek: TMP, the studio had proven to itself, that, despite a literally hellish creative process, a runaway budget, and a complete lack of direction, Star Trek could still be profitable.  With Star Trek II, the studio had proved that Star Trek could be done much more cheaply, and, with the stars aligning perfectly and the right people at the helm, could even reach for the heights of cinematic greatness.

Now, though, they wanted something at once much easier and much more difficult; to prove that Star Trek could be done profitably and, well...again and again and again and again and again.

In other words, the studio wanted Star Trek to be a franchise.  They wanted a fixed creative team, a recipe, a direction; they wanted a surefire bet.  Not a smash hit, necessarily; but simply the dream of studio filmmakers everywhere, a property whose gross and expense/profit margin could be calculated and penciled into the budget well in advance, without too many surprises; something that did not have to rely on acts of God, or on the unpredictable, uncontrollable force of Gene Roddenberry's ego, to continually get made and be profitable.
Star Trek had proven it could be great; now, as far as the studio was concerned, there needed to be a lot more of it.

Harve Bennett, in general, more than concurred.  He was, first and foremost, a professional maker of entertainments, with a creative drive and an overall contract with the studio; more than this, he was a television man, used to the year-in, year-out grind of creating one piece of film after another, week after week, month after month, mindful always that no matter what, a show had to be shot and edited by its airdate; more than this, he was a producer, used to being intimately involved with all the nuts and bolts of getting a piece of film shot and edited and released on time and under budget.  

More than all this, though, Harve Bennett simply wanted to make more movies.  The Wrath of Khan had taken him from the peripheries of television and given him a central place in the far more respected world of big-screen filmmaking.  It had given him a group of people to be a part of, the vast and fervent Star Trek fanbase.  It had given him a place where he belonged.

Harve Bennett was on a roll; and he wanted to keep it going.

There was, though, just one tiny, tiny little problem imperiling Star Trek's continuing success as a film-making property: Spock, Star Trek's most popular and iconic character by far, was now dead.

Although Leonard Nimoy had been happy when, during the initial stages of scripting, Bennett had proposed killing off his character--so thoroughly disenchanted was he by Roddenberry's antics--by the time TWOK's filming was winding down, seeing Star Trek begin to take wing and soar before his eyes, he started having second thoughts.  Big second thoughts.  By Nimoy's account, so distraught was he about his character's impending death that he came very close to walking off the set rather than play Spock's death scene at all.  Star Trek, and Spock, meant a lot to Nimoy, personally and professionally; and he was, truly, as sad as anyone to be out of it forever.

Armed with this info and informed by these underlying concerns, both the studio and Harve Bennett quickly, before the film was even released into theaters, began thinking actively about solving this problem.  Star Trek without Spock would, everyone agreed, be a less interesting and possibly even less profitable enterprise; and the actor who played Spock was unhappy about the prospect of being shut out of it forever.  The answer, quickly, began to seem clear to everyone: bring back Spock.

To Nicholas Meyer, though, the director and writer of Spock's death, all of this thinking was utterly foreign; because for him, making movies was, first and foremost, about telling stories.  Spock's death was integral to the themes and meaning of this particular story; that was all there was to it, period, end of story, conversation over.  When studio executives and Harve Bennett began meeting with him to bring up the prospect of reviving Spock, Meyer, to put it mildly, did not react well at all.  Not only did he not like this idea, he actively and bitterly opposed it, from its earliest conception, with the utmost fervor and fury.  Bringing back Spock, he maintained, was a cheat, a gimmick, a fundamental betrayal of the authenticity of the audience's emotional reaction to his death--and, more to the point, it was also directly contradictory to the truth of his movie, The Wrath of Kahn, a story about accepting death and finality and limitation.  Bringing Spock back was, quite simply, a lie; and he would have nothing to do with it.

Despite this, with both Bennett and the studio united in their concern, the decision was made to edit the ending of TWOK, after its first screening, but before its official release, in such a way as to plant possible seeds for the return of Spock.  That way, Bennett maintained, things could go either way; and the audience would be left, at the very least, with a feeling of hope that would hopefully lead to them to returning to the theaters within the next few years, hungry for more adventures.

Meyer, as can be imagined, was not thrilled with this idea; and, in the end, the footage for the new ending was shot without his participation or approval, and against his vociferous objections and various tactics he had concocted to delay or prevent it.  

Still, in the end, the new ending did go through; and, years later, Meyer would wonder just why he had objected so much to it in the first place.  

It is, in fact, remarkably subtle, as these things go; for the single story of The Wrath of Khan, it does not, in truth, make much of a difference.  The additions, such as they are, come down to a few short, extra bits designed mostly to plant seeds in viewers minds: Spock, prior to entering the chamber that will kill him, placing his hand on the unconscious McCoy and saying, "Remember"; McCoy, later, on the bridge, saying with a smile: "You know, he's really not dead so long as we remember him"; the unexpected sight of Spock's coffin, having, against all odds, touched down unharmed onto the new Genesis planet; a very brief voiceover from Kirk, saying "If Genesis really is life from death, I must return to this place"; and, finally, having the film end with Spock's spectral voice reciting the preamble to the original Star Trek, with one added emphasis: "These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, its continuing mission..."  Some of these changes are, indeed, mildly incongruous; McCoy's extra line is a slightly jarring note in an otherwise pitch-perfect scene, and Kirk's brief voiceover makes little sense in context.  Some other of the changes are, perhaps, actually pretty nice: Spock's coffin on the new sunrise of the Genesis planet is oddly affecting and poetically appropriate, Spock's recitation of the Star Trek preamble is definitely an earned grace note for the film it ends.  Really, though, watching the film without knowledge of what is to come, it is hard to imagine what all the fuss was over.

Still, when all was said and done, TWOK had been altered for good; and the problem of the death of Spock, the problem of the non-franchisability of Star Trek, had taken its first step towards being solved.

Spock would be back; and so would Bennett.

Meyer, however, would not be.  When approached to direct the new film, he, quite simply, had no interest in resurrecting Spock.  As a man of literature, he saw only stories; and he couldn't either make sense of or tell such a story.

Harve Bennett, though, knew exactly how to do it; an old television writer, he knew both how to set up a cliffhanger (even a very subtle cliffhanger), and how to resolve it.  Messing up the status quo, and then quickly restoring it, is the basic tool of the television writer.  Bennett was a creative guy as well; and he understood the positive elements of Star Trek better than most people.  So he went away, and wrote the script for The Search For Spock.
In truth, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock is basically Harve Bennett's version of Star Trek.  Sure, Leonard Nimoy is the director; but by his own admission, he very much relied on, and kowtowed to, Bennett as returning producer for this assignment; whereas, by Star Trek IV, he was much more willing to originate ideas, including the overall idea for the film.  Nimoy's contribution is certainly present throughout TSFS, and it is possible, as Darren Franich does very well, to interpret the film in terms of Nimoy's relationships with Shatner, Star Trek, and his own character.  I don't think, though, that this is really the key to TSFS as a movie; for more than any other, TSFS is not Nimoy's, but Harve Bennett's Star Trek: Star Trek as an ensemble, action-adventure television show.

TSFS suffers a lot as a movie from its juxtaposition with TWOK; and it suffers even more from its unconvincing attempt to make us think that TWOK was, really, truly, a cliffhanger demanding resolution, demanding a followup that would restore order to the universe.  Really, TWOK is none of those things; it is as complete and as convincing a story as any ever made, and it no more calls for Spock's resurrection than the Iliad calls for that of Hector.  Indeed, as Meyer intuited, the resurrection (or rather, mere revival, not so much Christ as Lazarus) of Spock in TSFS is as much a failure to understand the point of TWOK as bringing Hector back to life and having him save Troy from destruction in the Iliad would be.

This failure to understand, in TSFS, extends far beyond the death of Spock.  In relation to its predecessor, TSFS constitutes a pervasive and disastrous reinterpretation of The Wrath of Khan, a horrific misunderstanding of what made that movie tick, what it meant, and what it stood for.

I have put this point very starkly-- but, in truth, there is little that is clumsy or halting about TSFS's misinterpretation of TWOK; it is obviously quite conscious, and quite deliberate.  It is not a blunder so much as a creative choice--a choice with an obvious point.  Much of the narrative of TSFS consists of a process by which the greatest and most transcendent elements of TWOK are sacrificed, one by one and deliberately, to the expedient of restoring the world of Star Trek, the television show, in the most direct and unaltered way possible.  Spock is dead?  Bring Spock back to life.  Kirk has a son with whom he has reconciled, who represents a new chance at living life completely differently?  Kill him off.  Kirk has accepted old age and his own limitations and flaws?  Have him spend the climax fist-fighting and flipping head over heels with an evil Klingon, as lava erupts around him, and end with him kicking said the Klingon off of a cliff.
Really, TSFS is not a sequel to TWOK so much as it is a quite deliberate subversion of its predecessor's themes and import--a deliberate sacrifice of the singularity of the "great film" to the hungering demands of the franchise.  TWOK is such a transcendent work of art, with so many finalizing elements--for crying out loud, it effectively resolves Kirk's character arc for good, kills off Spock permanently, and creates a brand new technology capable of bringing forth life from lifelessness-- that it not only does not demand a followup, it almost demands not having one.  At the very least, any followup would have to be almost as good as its predecessor even to stay above water, would have to wrestle honestly with the Big Ideas that defined TWOK, show us the new Kirk we were promised, depict his relationship with his son, show us the effect on the universe of the Genesis device, take seriously the transcendent power and enlivening effects of Spock's death of love...the list goes on and on.
TSFS, and Harve Bennett, quite deliberately elected not to try.  This is absolutely clear almost from the film's first frame; but it is never clearer than in the treatment of Kirk's son, David.  TWOK ended with the reconciliation of father and son, and an implicit promise that Kirk would start to put him first, sacrifice for him rather than negligently allow him to suffer as the result of his actions as before.  TSFS, in contrast, never has father and son interact at all; it separates them into two distinct plotlines, and then kills David perfunctorily, in part for basic television-plot-related reasons (Hero Kirk will not give in, so Klingon kills his son!), but mostly to give Kirk a chance to react to this event (in a genuinely good piece of acting by Shatner) and one more reason to dislike the badguy ("You Klingon bastard, you've killed my son!" screams Kirk; This Time, It's Personal!).  No one genuinely trying to making a sequel to TWOK would do any of these things.

Harve Bennett, though, obviously didn't want to.  For, even if such a mammoth undertaking were successful-- as The Empire Strikes Back and very few other such films have been-- it would lead at best to a single, very closed-book duology, telling a single, coherent story of a few people and their relationships, hopes, and failings--or perhaps, with yet more heroic efforts, even a trilogy, like Star Wars.  It would not lead to an open-ended property, capable of extending indefinitely into the future, installation after installation after installation.  It would not lead to a franchise.

To Bennett's credit, though, I don't think financial motivations were his sole or even his main concern in creating The Search For Spock.  After all, a true sequel to TWOK, great as it might be, would also not lead to the colorful world of Star Trek the television show, with a heroic ensemble, villainous heavies, and story after story after story of glorious, open-ended adventure and wonder among the stars--and this was what Bennett, more than anything, had fallen in love with, liked, and understood.  If TWOK's ambitions had to be sacrificed for this purpose, then so be it.

I do not, then, feel all that bitter against TSFS.  It is not, in truth, a great or even really a very good movie; and the degree to which it is a clumsy failure can be almost entirely correlated with the degree to which it is trying to tie in with TWOK.  TSFS is not altogether a failure, though; for it is also, undeniably, the closest any Star Trek film ever got to the exact level, tone, and color of Star Trek TOS, in all its quirky 60s-television glory.  This Bennett got as no one has ever gotten it before or since, in all its specificity and strangeness; he got the basic joke of the McCoy-Spock relationship/comedy-team-up (what a funny idea, McCoy with Spock in his brain!), he got the fun and camaraderie of the crew as a band of heroic adventurers, bonded together at the hip (what excitement, to see the whole crew teaming up to rescue Spock, and stealing the Enterprise!), he got the dastardly bluntness of Star Trek's idea of the Klingons (what if the Klingons heard about the Genesis device? what if the Klingon villain had a pet lizard monster?), he got the humanistic conservatism of Star Trek's approach to technology (TWOK's Genesis device was a literary metaphor for its themes of death and creation; TSFS's Genesis device is yet another example of Man's Hubris Leading to Disaster, with Kirk's son David as yet another scientist undone by pride), he got the basic attitude to authority which made Star Trek portray its Federation officials as annoying, if well-meaning bureaucrats to have noses thumbed at (Kirk: "The word is no.  I am therefore going anyway.").  Really, you could fill a book with all the things he understood about TOS, as a world and above all as a television show; but his central insight is also one that it is, truly, very hard to argue against: for if Spock had died on the television show (as he almost did in several episodes for plot reasons), damn straight that would have been a cliffhanger, and damn straight they would have brought him back to life in the next episode.

If TWOK, then, gave the world TOS ennobled and lifted up into the realms of universal human art, TSFS gives you TOS straight up, with no substitutions.  This is one reason why, truly, I can't feel all that angry at TSFS as a film.  It is, obviously, a labor of love; even if, perhaps, you can't help wondering what might have been if Bennett had loved TWOK as much as TOS.

In all frankness, though, TWOK is probably better off this way.  Better to have a sequel that quite openly flubs its chance at making a sequel to a great film in favor of doing something completely different than a grand follow-up trying to out-do its predecessor on each point and failing miserably.

Personally, I think of TWOK as existing in a universe where it is, as it should be, the very last Star Trek movie of them all; redeeming Kirk and leaving him to live the deeper and richer life that should have been, giving Spock at long last the true rest and transcendent fulfillment he had always longed for in life ("It is a far better thing that I do know than I have ever done before.  It is a far better rest that I go to than I have ever known").

TSFS, in contrast, I think of as existing in a totally different universe altogether; a sequel to a completely different, and much lesser story, where a dastardly heavy attacked the Enterprise and killed Spock, leaving Kirk broken-hearted and despondent, and events desperate for resolution.  Actually, there are well-researched Star Trek fans--the kind for whom the word canon has every bit as much meaning as it does for Presbyterian Bible scholars--who have proposed that, when all the details of both films are examined thoroughly, TSFS simply has to take place in a parallel universe from TWOK--after all, the battle damage at the beginning of TSFS is so much more extensive than that at the end of TWOK, and so on and so forth.  I take this suggestion for what it is worth--but really, on a much deeper level, it is true all the same.  TSFS is not a sequel to TWOK; it is instead a sequel to the few, tiny elements that Bennett inserted into the ending of TWOK, with an entirely fictitious version of the whole movie built up around them.  When this is acknowledged, The Search For Spock can be appreciated for what it is: an adventure film set in the world of Star Trek the television show, flaws and all.
There is, however, one other element about the film that I do appreciate, and which is, in a sense, rather new for Star Trek: the film's unabashed spirituality.  The entire plot of the movie is set up by the idea that Spock, quite simply, has an immortal soul; and the true climax of the film is not Kirk's roustabout fight with the Klingon, but a massive Vulcan liturgy in a giant red-rock cavern, with Dame Judith Anderson presiding in regal grandeur.  This is something you either like or you don't; I, personally, love it.  Vulcans, even on the generally American-secular Star Trek, always had a mystical side to them, the result in part of the very real dignity, pain, and longing expressed by Nimoy's performance--and this side was always, always intimately linked with the indelible Jewishness of many of Star Trek's leading lights.  Nimoy was Jewish; so, improbably, is Shatner; so was Harve Bennett; so is Nicholas Meyer; so, for the later Star Treks, is Rick Berman; and so is my father.  It is, perhaps, not easy to communicate the quality expressed by genuine Judaism--even quite secular Judaism--to people who are unfamiliar with it; but this quality is at the true heart of TSFS as a film.  For much of its running time, this quality is expressed by Mark Lenard's ineffable, franchise-spanning performance as Sarek--a performance with all the great, unconscious dignity, and all the genuine humanity, of a Baroque painting.  In truth, though, the film is full of it; and it is, really, something beautiful.

The Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" salute was, famously, based by Nimoy on a gesture used by the priests, the Kohenim, to bless the people in the Orthodox services of his youth.  Hence, when Sarek and Spock extend their hands in greeting, they are, really, going half-way towards spelling out one of the many mysterious names of the God of Israel: Adonai.  Logically, then, when Spock is, finally, revived, it is not so much in the context of a Resurrection scene as of a Jewish High Holy Day service.
Of course, as with everything in TSFS, layered on top of this deeper and more profound influence, there are also the clear, indelible marks of the pervasive Orientalism of '60s culture; but this should hardly be a surprise to us.  This is what The Search For Spock is, and what it is quite content to be.

TSFS does, to be sure, have a moral: and it is expressed, in typical fashion, as a reversal and misunderstanding of a line from TWOK.  In TWOK, Spock, living and dying, expressed the sentiment that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one: an obvious riff on Greater love hath no man than this.  In TSFS, the crew, in the end, concludes that sometimes, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.  This does not particularly make sense as either a counterpoint or even a rebuttal to TWOK's sentiment; and its genuine point is rather obscured by the clumsy way it is put, hampered--like most of TSFS--by the need to try to pretend it has anything to do with TWOK.  Still, the underlying message is worthy: that if it is good for the individual to sacrifice for the community, then it is also good for the community to labor and sacrifice to help and do justice to the individual.  It is indeed a noble and touching thing that the crew, both individually and also as a crew, as a unit, are willing to sacrifice their careers and put themselves into danger in order to help Spock.  The film does not, perhaps, show this moral in action as clearly as it might, since it is obviously rather more interested in other things; but the sentiment is worth saying all the same.

Even if as a film it is rather flawed, though, from the studio's perspective, TSFS fully fulfilled its function; it brought into being Star Trek the franchise, ensuring beyond the shadow of a doubt that there would, in fact, be another Star Trek movie after it, and then (almost certainly) another one after that, for as long as the studio wanted to keep it going.  It was reviewed decently, though not as well as TWOK; it made good money.  It was a quite easy and painless production, expertly shepherded by the extremely competent Harve Bennett.  The fans liked it; the cast was happy with it; and Nimoy, of course, got to express himself artistically as a director, even if in many ways it was as a student of Bennett, rather than a true creative mastermind.  Star Trek now had a creative team, a recipe.  It was, once again, a success.

With these elements in place, the problem now was much simpler, and much more intriguing: what story should they tell next?  Bennett and Nimoy now had a blank canvas in front of them, and plenty of studio resources and audience good-will to do whatever they pleased.  The one cliffhanger element inserted by Bennett, in expert television fashion, into TSFS--the destruction of the USS Enterprise--could be resolved easily no matter what the plot of the new film was.  The question, though, was: what did they want to do?

If I am not as angry at TSFS as I might be, it is, in large part because if this film had not so pervasively pushed the reset button, then Nimoy and Bennett would most likely never have had the creative freedom to do what they did next: create the most joyous, most carefree, and most-sheer-fun-by-a-hundred-thousand-miles Star Trek film ever.

There is, then, something to be said for franchises, at least as men like Bennett once conceived them; and that is that, within their limits, they provide a creative freedom that is unparalleled.  What Bennett realized, what television in his day realized, is that, if you have a good creative team in place, a well-oiled production machine, and a decent profit margin for the studio, if you have good characters and a good setting and good elements to work with, and if you try to generally uphold the status quo-- then, well, it turns out you can tell whatever story you want to.

That being said, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, to a much greater degree than TSFS, Leonard Nimoy's baby, Leonard Nimoy's own particular vision of Star Trek.  The story for TSFS was Harve Bennett's; the story for TVH was, from the beginning, Nimoy's.  As Nimoy put it at the time, he wanted to do "something nice."  He wanted to make a movie that audiences would really enjoy watching, that would make them feel good.  He wanted a story where there would be no villains, no black-hat heavies, no gunfights, and no space battles.  The enemy, he was adamant, would not be any particular human being, but something far less personal and concrete: ignorance and prejudice on a societal level.

In close collaboration with Bennett, the two quickly came up with a story involving a crisis that could only be solved by the existence of humpback whales which, in the 23rd century, would be extinct due to overwhaling; and so, the crew of the Enterprise would be forced to come back to the contemporary world of the 1980s to get them.

This fit Nimoy's dictums quite well.  A contemporary setting would not only make for an easy connection with the film's audiences, not only allow the film all kinds of obvious comedic possibilities, but it would also, for the very first time in the history of the Star Trek franchise, allow the film to be shot almost entirely on location, opening it up and bringing in abundant energy and liveliness.  At the same time, this environmental parable would make an obvious, and generally crowd-pleasing, point, without making too many people uncomfortable; after all, who doesn't want to save the whales?

Star Trek IV, it seems, was good to go.

However, at this creative stage, an unexpected event took place that drastically altered the creative course of the film: Eddie Murphy, one of the superstars of the 1980s, declared publicly that he wanted to star in the new film.  Murphy was, at this point, big news: a bankable franchise of his own, with enormous clout in the studio world.  If he said he wanted to be in a film, well...people listened.

And so, after meeting with Murphy and telling him of the film's basic story, Nimoy and Bennett made the decision to write a "vehicle" script--one that would prominently feature his comedic talents in a leading role.

To this end, they turned to the screenwriting team of Meerson and Krikes.  In time, the two produced a full, feature-length script for Murphy and co.  This script, it appears, featured the Enterprise crew travelling to the 20th century, and there encountering a "kooky" college professor, played by Eddie Murphy, who believed in extraterrestrials.  After accidentally decloaking their ship during the half-time show of the superbowl, the Enterprise crew would then have locked on to whale song being played by Murphy in his classroom, beaming in and surprising him.  The rest of the details are a bit more hazy: Murphy visiting the park where their invisible ship was to leave gifts for the "aliens," the crew breaking into the particle accelerator at Stanford University to revivify their ship, a reporter borrowing a phaser from Murphy only to have her cat accidentally vaporize furniture in her apartment, and, apparently, at the end of the film, Murphy in the 23rd century, having joined Starfleet.

In Captain's Log, an unofficial Trek guidebook, Meerson and Krikes have a long interview where they take great exception to the idea that their script was unsuccessful, or did not influence the final draft very much.  Most of the details I've just given are from that interview; and though it's not their intention, the overall impact of their interview, on me at least, is to indicate that, basic plot aside, their script draft really doesn't have all that much to do with the final film.

In any event, when their script draft had been turned in, something very important happened: Murphy dropped out.  If Murphy had stayed, would the draft have been filmed?  Who can say?

In any event, after pursuing a white whale (this is a deliberate pun on several different levels) for months, both Bennett or Nimoy agreed that they needed an entirely new script, and a new direction, as soon as possible.

To that end, they turned to a man they knew could write well; someone who was very familiar with Star Trek and his characters; and someone who had even shown the ability, if necessary, to write a transcendentally amazing feature-length script in only ten days.  I am speaking, of course, of Nicholas Meyer.

Meyer had, as I indicated, refused to have anything to do with bringing Spock back to life.  Now, though, Spock was alive, and, as he later expressed it, his friends were in trouble.  He agreed to lend a hand.

To that end, he and Bennett decided to divide up script duties.  Bennett would write the beginning and ending of the film, set in space and in the future; thus, he would deal with the plot set up, as well as the loose ends left by TSFS.  In turn, Meyer would write the 20th century portions of the movie, the search for whales in San Francisco of the '80s.  This was something Meyer could do quickly and easily; especially as the basic premise of this film, time travelers going to San Francisco, was uncannily similar to his own debut film Time After Time.  Time After Time, though, had been a very dark look at the 1970s, with a lone protagonist out of sorts and a frightening villain to be confronted and killed; TVH was a very cheerful look at the 1980s, a villainless ensemble film, and a big, joyful scavenger hunt through the city.  Surface similarities aside, the two are diametrically different films.

Still, Meyer had a sense of humor, and his contributions to TVH are, as we might expect, truly sublime: joyful, light-hearted, at turns hilarious and touching.  Harve Bennett's sections of the film, too, do an excellent job of setting things up and of doing justice to each one of the characters involved.  One of the most touching scenes in the film, oddly enough, is the closing conversation between Spock and his father; quiet, guarded, but filled with meaning and emotion.  Bennett truly loved these characters and what they stood for; and it definitely shows.

As a whole, though, TVH is a rather difficult film to critique.  It is so obviously carefree, so clearly conscious of and delighted by everything it sees, that there's little point in making the obvious, plot-hole-related criticisms.  The Voyage Home is a rare comedy film that never does anything but right by its characters; a rare comedy film that constantly invites us to laugh at our characters, not because they are ridiculous or stupid or pathetic, but because they are so wonderful, so delightful, so much themselves.  Nimoy's contribution, more than anything else, comes in this attention to each one of the characters, from the most important to the least.  For Nimoy, the crew is a bonded ensemble of heroes, committed both to each other and to the unit as a whole, a community of singular people adrift by themselves in the universe.  When Chekov, always the least-essential member of the ensemble, ends up in a 20th century hospital, there is no doubt that everyone else will risk themselves to rescue him; what else would they possibly do?  There are no unimportant people in this crew.
Still, Kirk and Spock are clearly in charge, an odd-couple mother and father for this strange little family; and they are also a truly magnificent comic duo.  Standing in for Eddie Murphy (and several other characters, apparently, from the first draft) is Gillian Taylor, a female marine biologist who gets to represent 20th century humanity, pick up a hitch-hiking Kirk and Spock on the side of the road, and eat dinner with Kirk in the bargain (he stiffs her on the check).  This is all delightful (I seem to be using that word a lot).  You could certainly argue, as fans no doubt do, over which of Kirk's many flames he should, finally, have ended up with (let's ignore Star Trek Generations here); in Nicholas Meyer's first draft for Star Trek VI, for instance, he tried to put Kirk back together with Carol Marcus, only for the scene to later go unfilmed due to budgetary woes.  For my money, though, I think Gillian Taylor is the one.

Still, though, every character really does get to shine here, from Chekov's nuclear wessels and FBI interrogation to Scotty's professorial role to Sulu's helicopter piloting.  Here, every character is larger-than-life, every character is a hero, and every character is funny.
I don't, really, have an enormous amount to say about Star Trek IV.  It is, probably, one of the best character comedies ever made; it is also, probably, the finest hour of the supporting cast since the original show; it is also, without a doubt, just a bit flimsy in the plot department.  All these things are true: but really, this is a movie that exists to be watched and enjoyed, not talked about.  You should just quit reading this and go watch it already.  I'll wait.

Done?  Alright, great.  Before I go, however, I do want to make one comparison.  Leonard Nimoy, famously, was deeply, deeply unhappy with Star Trek TMP--perhaps the most unhappy of any of the original cast.  So thoroughly disenchanted was he by it that he could only be brought to participate in TWOK, initially, by the prospect of his character being killed off for good.  It is notable, then, that Star Trek IV is presented, in basic plot setup, almost as a deliberate rebuttal to Star Trek TMP.
Both films open with a mysterious probe from deep space approaching the Federation; in both, the probe, unfathomably powerful and from parts unknown, neutralizes ships as it approaches Earth, and then threatens the planet with destruction; both probes want, essentially, to communicate, but neither wants to communicate with man (V'ger wants to communicate with its creator, and is confused by what these biological lifeforms are doing around; the probe in TVH wants to talk to whales); and both consequently threaten to wipe out mankind (the whale probe, apparently, by accident) as a result.

It is there, though, that these two films, quite deliberately, diverge.  In TMP, the only way to make contact with the probe is to approach it slowly by ship, enter its inner shell, and go on a cosmic, head-trip tour of psychedelia circa 1979 in order to finally begin to understand the fathomless intelligence behind the probe and convince it of mankind's worth.  In Star Trek IV, it turns out that the probe wants to talk to (extinct) humpback whales; and so our crew, logically enough, goes back in time to get them, thus (presumably) proving mankind's basic goodness to the whales, who then engage in an incomprehensible, un-subtitled conversation with the probe and convince it to depart.

There is a lot to be gleaned from this brief comparison, about exactly what Star Trek was to Nimoy, and why he saw TMP as such a profound betrayal of that vision.  TMP is essentially a story about isolated experience and intellectual insecurity; the only path forward is to escape the ordinary and human altogether, to reach some bizarre, alienating threshhold of consciousness.  TVH is essentially a humanistic fable, interested in the ordinary concerns of life on earth, and above all in people, their personalities and their emotions--comfortable with the existence of mystery and the unknown, treating them with respect and reverence, but not made remotely insecure by them.  The former is individualistic, a cosmically isolating head-trip; the latter is a story about community.

More important than all this, though, is both film's approaches to their characters.  In TMP, the characters seem small and insignificant; TVH makes its heroes titanic wonders of personality, magnetically interesting in all situations.  TMP deliberately sacrifices its characters' personalities to the overriding imperatives of space, distance, and mind-blowing science fiction concept--TVH uses its sci fi concepts solely as a vehicle to magnify its characters' personalities and relationships, ditching (for most of the movie) essentially all the trappings of science fiction in favor of pure character comedy: and it works.  Kirk, it turns out, is just as riveting when eating dinner in an Italian restaurant as he is on the bridge of an outer-space destroyer; and Spock is never more majestically alien, never more fascinating, than when wandering the streets of San Francisco, a bandanna around his head.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home, then, is fundamentally a story about character, about personality; and the case that it makes, both in juxtaposition with TMP and on its own, is that Star Trek, fundamentally, is not a science fiction property at all.  It is, rather, a group of characters, a community, a family, adventuring together and fighting for one another until the bitter end.
At the end of the film, as I've already mentioned, Sarek at last approaches his son and engages him in conversation.  The Vulcan Ambassador has been highly impressed by Spock and co's handling of the crisis brought on by the whale probe.  He acknowledges that, as established in TOS, he had initially opposed his son's enlistment in Starfleet; now, though, he thinks that that earlier judgment was, possibly, an error.  Sarek, our Jewish Vulcan patriarch, now fully approves of this crew, this band of heroes, this strange community Spock has found for himself.  Spock has sacrificed for this community; and it has sacrificed for him.  Sarek is pleased: "Your associates are people of good character."

Spock corrects him:  "They are my friends."

And Sarek, the father figure of the franchise, agrees: "Of course."
By the end of TVH, the status quo has been fully restored.  Spock is alive again; and the Enterprise, destroyed by Bennett in TSFS, is back as well.  Once again, our heroes are on the bridge of a starship, together, heading out into the unknown.  Everything is the way it was before.

We can, if we wish, treat this as a bad thing; and indeed, compared to the glorious, transcendent truth of TWOK--about the need to face finality, to face the end, to face death--this open-ended escapism does fall, indelibly, short.  But still: how comforting, truly, to think that these people--these wonderful, colorful, heroic people--are still out there somewhere, having adventures among the stars, together as they were always meant to be.

Long live Star Trek the franchise.

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